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First-person accounts of life after graduation


Posting Date: May 19, 2011

Amy Johnson (MAT Art, 2010)
A New Kind of Education: The KEYS to Learning in Africa

The sun beats down intensely on the field hockey pitch at Greensted’s International School outside Nakuru, Kenya. From the sidelines a coach in a charming British accent chortles, “Nice save Rebecca! Great form; stick down, now!” I watch spellbound as the ebony-dark 13-year-old girl focuses intently on a member of the opposing team’s offense. While the coach continues to shout instructions to his pupils, I observe the players on the pitch. The girls clumsily hold field hockey sticks, stumble, and try to remember plays, while Rebecca stalks them, wielding her field hockey stick as if she has been playing the game her entire life. I glance at my mother, standing next to me on the sidelines. She shakes her head in disbelief and says: “Not bad for a girl who a month ago was running around barefoot in an orphanage.”

Rebecca playing field hockey.


Photos courtesy of Amy Johnson

Rebecca is one of four Kenyan students from impoverished and parentless backgrounds who, just this past January, have found themselves enrolled at the prestigious British Greensted’s International School. Their tuition is sponsored through an American organization known as Kenyan Education for Youth Society, or KEYS. And, while my involvement with KEYS is still in its infancy, I feel privileged to witness the incredible stories of these students.


KEYS has an interesting inception that stems from American support for Kenyan children. Approximately five years ago, an American nonprofit Christian missionary group known as Serv Ministries International began work on a feeding program in Kenya. Utilizing a grant from the United States government, Serv Ministries disbursed dehydrated food packets to Internally Displaced Persons Camps, or IDP Camps, in and around some of the most impoverished parts of Kenya. One of the IDP Camps is located outside the northwestern town of Lodwar, Kenya. Lodwar is listed as one of the most remote places on the planet. And, until two years ago, the only way to reach Lodwar was via a two-day car journey (without fuel stations) from Nakuru, Kenya or by chartered plane.


Today, a small local airline can take anyone able to pay the $600 round-trip fee to Lodwar. This travel option, while exorbitantly expensive for what it is, has opened Lodwar up to in-country, and international aid. Arriving at Lodwar is a harrowing experience. From skidding down a gravel runway, to exiting a tiny plane, to viewing burned-out bits of old plane fuselage off the side of the runway, the austerity of the desert landscape that is Lodwar greets a visitor with an air of the oppressive. Adults and children alike hang out at the 24 square-foot covered cement pad that serves as the airport for the sheer novelty of seeing Mzungu (Swahili for white people) sweat and turn pink in the sun.


Lodwar is still distinctly tribal. For that matter, most of Kenya’s population still allays itself according to tribal lines. Nearly everyone marries within their own tribes. And, while to most Mzungu visitors, Kenyans appear to be from the same racial background, this is untrue. There are many tribes within Kenya, and even though all except the Maasai embrace modern, westernized dress, Kenyans can recognize a person’s tribe by merely looking at his or her face. Even considering all of this, Lodwar is still more distinctly tribal than the rest of Kenya. Its remote location alone has ensured the local tribe of Lodwar, the Turkana, live life in much the same way as they have for decades. The only exception to this is the firm hold Safaricom, the East African cellular phone company, has on local industry. The people I encountered in Lodwar may be impoverished, but many had cell phones.


Women in Lodwar marry young, sometimes as early as 11 years old. Since Kenyan culture relies on a strict dowry system, very few divorce. Women across Kenya have few rights. According to the newly approved Kenyan Constitution women enjoy equality in Kenya, but I found this to be fundamentally untrue. It is still legal and acceptable to beat your wife. When one local man learned my mother had never been beaten by my father he exclaimed: “But, what does he do when your mother makes him angry!?” Even as a Western visitor, I personally endured and encountered such difficult and harsh chauvinism I doubt I will visit the country again without a Western male escort.


The women of Lodwar are strong and bright; their survival alone depends on these qualities. As a local community leader in Lodwar said about his wife: “I’ve been married to her for 20 years. Since she was 11. If she dies,” he says with a shrug, “I will marry again.” Few women, however, are educated, and even fewer still are particularly maternal. One can conclude that becoming a mother while still a child yourself, having ten plus children, and enduring likely beatings from your husband, doesn’t engender a warm motherhood.


Women, unsurprisingly, do not often survive long enough to become elderly. Yet women are not the only affected by Lodwar. The Lodwar culture, combined with the high incidence of disease (tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, AIDS, and other less traumatic illnesses) and lack of medical care mean that many persons, male and female alike do not live to be elderly, or even adults for that matter. The number of orphans in Kenya is unprecedented, and while this is undoubtedly tragic, most at least can find shelter and perhaps one meal a day at an orphanage. Lodwar, until three years ago, had no such outlet. The parentless children were dependent upon relatives for care, and with the current level of poverty in Lodwar, many families couldn’t support added children. Orphaned children of Lodwar slept where they could, ate when and what they could, and generally went without care.


Amy drawing with children in Africa. Watch video of the children making sun prints.



Realizing the need for a local orphanage, Serv Ministries purchased a 100-acre plot of land with a bunkhouse that had previously been a boarding school. Serv gained the confidence of local Lodwar leaders, and with their aid, identified those children with the most immediate need for housing, and the House of Hope orphanage was born. Three years later, Serv Ministries provides housing, meals, and education for numerous orphaned children through generous donations and sponsorships.


Visiting House of Hope after walking around Lodwar is like breathing a breath of fresh air. Trees flourish in the desert landscape as they are watered by employees. Children yell and play happily on a set of playground equipment. While it is still an austere place by Western standards, it is far nicer in its accommodations than any other place in Lodwar. The children are safe from their pasts, receive medical care, have a safe place to sleep, eat three meals a day, attend school, and are well loved and tended by the orphanage employees. It is hard to avoid falling in love with the children during a visit.


But, for a select few of Serv Ministries board members, the provisions for the children at House of Hope are not enough. They began to question what would happen to the children as they age out of the orphanage, and even what that age  might be. These persons began to feel an ethical responsibility for the entire lives of the children at House of Hope and wondered if it is right to return them as teenagers or young adults to the poverty from which they were rescued. From this group of people, Kenyan Education for Youth Society, or KEYS was born.


There is an old Kenyan fable that goes like this: The jungle was on fire, and all the animals ran from it for safety. An old lion watched as a tiny hummingbird flew to the lake, got his wings wet and flew over the fire. During his flight the old lion observed tiny droplets of water falling onto the fire. As the hummingbird returned to the lake again the old lion said: “Why are you doing this? You can’t possibly stop the fire.” To which the hummingbird replied, “If we all tried, we might.” Such is the philosophy of the founding members of KEYS. Recognizing that individuals lack the ability and the finances to save and educate every orphaned Kenyan child, the organization focuses instead on aiding specific children; on making a difference for one child. It is their hope that by sharing both their passion for education and the stories of the children they aid, that others might join in and help as well.


The purpose of my visit Kenya was to help KEYS identify children within and without House of Hope orphanage that might benefit most from a stronger education, serve as maternal big sister to the children, and to help both the children and KEYS navigate the school enrollment process. As KEYS members had already identified British-Curriculum-based Greensted’s International School, as their school of choice on a previous visit, my “job” was often very easy and pleasurable.


This past December, KEYS identified four Kenyan children ranging in age from 13 to 16. Two are boys, two are girls. Two come from the House of Hope orphanage, and two come from nowhere other than their own volition. Their stories are strong, profound, and have forever changed the course of my own life.


And so it is, that I find myself, a pale Southern American woman of British and Scottish descent hopelessly entwined with the lives of four dark-skinned, orphaned, Kenyan children.


Rebecca, age 13, lost both of her parents due to illness. Little is known about her life prior to 10years of age. Rebecca either doesn’t remember much of it or chooses to not dwell on it. She was found living with her younger brother and her grandmother. Rebecca’s grandmother could not financially afford to support the children and, as of three years ago, Rebecca has called House of Hope her home.


Rebecca has done well at House of Hope. She is outspoken, a natural athlete and leader. Her demanding nature has enabled her to survive her past and perform well at the orphanage. When she feels her circumstances are less than what they should be, she is not fearful of speaking up. She openly told visitors to House of Hope that she wanted to go to a better school because she dreamed of becoming a pediatrician. And so it was that Rebecca was put on the short list for an educational sponsorship from KEYS. What was concerning however, was that the schools Rebecca had been attending, while being the best Lodwar has to offer, are significantly behind other comparable schools. KEYS was unsure of her eligibility to attend a Greensted’s International School.


Monti (above) and Cyrus (below)


Monti, age 14, does not speak of his past, and virtually nothing is known of it. He has no known relatives and was encouraged for shelter at House of Hope by community leaders in Lodwar. He has lived at House of Hope for three years. He is strong and quiet with an easy and warm smile. Visitors to House of Hope notice how he quietly aids the younger students and helps everyone whenever he can. Sine he was the oldest boy at House of Hope, KEYS members felt he was the most logical choice for an educational sponsorship. Yet, KEYS had the same concerns for Monti’s past educational performance as Rebecca. Would a British-Curriculum-based International school that often caters to the wealthy, even consider such students?


Cyrus, age 16, doesn’t know where he was born, but suspects it was somewhere near Nakuru, Kenya. He doesn’t remember any of life before age four and he doesn’t remember his parents. He does remember the orphanage where he lived until approximately age eight. The children there were fed one meal a day, a bowl of a porridge-like substance, and this meal never varied. If the children wished to eat, they were expected to labor in a farm. The farm work, as described to me, is something that Westerners would only expect adults to do.


Kenya provides free primary education to all students; this is a recent development. While the average Kenyan is proud their nation offers this education, there are restrictions and developments that prevent it from being equitable. First, the primary education only includes the grade-level equivalent of elementary school. Anyone, of any age, can attend a free primary school, and there are no class size restrictions. This means that very young children are sometimes in class with adults and that there may be as many as 60 students in a class. Sometimes, all 60 of these students share one text. Understandably, in this system, the quality of the education received is in question.


Second, as students graduate from primary school they must take a national standardized test. Students must obtain a certain score or above to move on to attend secondary school. Very few students earn the score needed to move on in their education. Those students who do earn higher marks must somehow find a way to pay for their secondary education, which is on average about $200. Most Kenyans cannot afford this and, as such, it is typical to find only one child in a family of many to be enrolled in school.


Cyrus values education. After aging out of his orphanage he ran away to the nearby city of Nakuru where he became a street boy. The street culture in Nakuru is alive and well and street boys make up their own gangs to serve the place of families. They protect each other, and provide a support system – of sorts – for one another. They perform daily odd jobs to earn money, steal, and sleep in doorways. Cyrus used the money he obtained as a street boy to go to school.


A typical day for Cyrus in Nakuru would begin at four a.m. when he would rise to do his homework. He would then attend school, and spend his evenings going about procuring food for the next day. He is a friendly soul and developed positive relationships with several American charity societies working within Nakuru, but none were aimed at education. Cyrus learned through one of these charitable contacts that members from KEYS would be visiting to find students for educational sponsorships. He prepared himself for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Greeting KEYS members on the street in his school uniform, Cyrus appeared neat, clean and professional. He handed over a folder containing his current and past grades (A’s and B’s), letters of recommendation from previous teachers, and copies of his national standardized test scores (well above the required score for secondary schools). He didn’t wait to share his story and his dreams.


Cyrus, a street boy from Nakuru, Kenya with no memory of his parents wants to be a neurosurgeon. He somehow learned about Dr. Ben Carson, the renowned American pediatric neurosurgeon, and aspires to be like him. And, to do that, he explained to KEYS members, he needed to go to a better school.


After meeting Cyrus, it was obvious he was the type of student KEYS was seeking: students whose abilities and dreams are bigger than their circumstances. Cyrus was offered one of the coveted sponsorships to Greensted’s International School. However, the offer of sponsorship was not a guarantee. Cyrus would still have to interview at Greensted’s, and have his grades submitted for review. He was thrilled, but as a child of the streets, he knew better than to celebrate until being vetted.




Ann, age 15, remembers her mother quite well. She is a prostitute and gave Ann away as a toddler to her grandmother and aunt. Ann has no close relationship with any of her living relatives, and explains her grandmother and aunt did little more for her than provide shelter and food. After Ann finished primary school, her grandmother and aunt sent her back to her mother and told Ann that it was time her mother was financially responsible for her.


Ann, who tested high enough on the national standardized test to attend secondary school, asked her mother for funds to attend secondary school. Ann’s mother told her that if she wanted to attend school, she would have to earn the money herself, and encouraged Ann to become a prostitute. Ann refused.


Instead, Ann ran away and began living with some girls close to her own age in a small apartment in Nakuru. Some of these girls would engage occasionally in prostitute behavior, but Ann stresses she herself managed to stay away from this lifestyle. By chance, Ann met a few members of one of the same American charitable organizations as Cyrus. They were concerned about Ann’s safety as she was unfamiliar with street life, and offered her a bunk in their orphanage for toddler-aged children.


The founders of the orphanage encouraged KEYS members to visit and meet Ann. They felt sure she was the type of student KEYS was seeking. One other KEYS member and I sat down with Ann one night to see if indeed she might fit the student profile. As Ann is an initially shy person, I was surprised to hear her soft voice avoid any hesitation as she told her story; it was obvious that even though life had afforded her few chances, she recognized the opportunity. She concluded her speech by stating her dream was to become a lawyer and protect children from the type of childhood she had endured.


Ann too, was ready with a folder containing her grades and test scores. Her grades were even higher than Cyrus’s. I remember closing her folder and shaking my head at my fellow KEYS member. He said: “She might just be the brightest kid we’ve encountered yet.”


It was nerve wracking to sit on a sofa in the admission office at Greensted’s International School with Ann, Cyrus, Rebecca, and Monti. Their nervousness was palatable. All four had to interview and speak of their hopes and dreams for the future. Honestly, I couldn’t have been prouder of them than if they were my own biological children. They impressed the Greensted’s staff, who recognized that while each student might have individual hurdles to cross, each possessed the drive to succeed. It seemed Greensted’s was as excited as KEYS members to help these four children achieve their dreams.


Three weeks after initial enrollment, I returned to Kenya with KEYS members to check on the children, attend a parents’ weekend, and provide some necessary support. While enduring the 30-hour trip to Kenya I didn’t know what to expect. Greensted’s has excellent communication with parents and guardians, but I know as an educator myself, that there are many sides to every story and I was concerned there may be issues of which we were not aware.


As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded.


The third day of school there was a test in Cyrus’s chemistry class. Recognizing Cyrus as a new student his teacher told him he did not have to take the test. Cyrus insisted upon taking the test, reasoning he might as well begin to identify the areas in which was deficient. It turns out that Cyrus was in no way deficient. He scored the highest grade in the class.


The children at Lake Nakuru. (From left) Cyrus, Monti, Ann and Rebecca.


“You just have to try,” Ann reasons for an explanation for her success at Greensteds. “You know, so much of this is new to me. I might be good at it. I might not. So, I try.” Ann won an award for punctuality to class. Her teachers are all avid fans of her success, and during my visit to campus several came up to me to tell me how much they enjoy teaching her. Again, as a teacher, it was unusual to be on the other end of a parents’ visit to school. But, I suddenly understand why parents puff up with pride so readily when they are told their child is successful. It is love.


Monti, I found out, is already a popular student in his class. He is performing excellently in his classes, and his Spanish teacher is particularly proud of Monti’s progress in class. As Spanish is Monti’s fourth language, I too couldn’t be prouder. Monti dreams of owning a bike and is working hard on speaking more in class as an incentive to bike ownership.


Rebecca is simply flourishing at Greensted’s. Hoards of 13-year-old girls ran up to me and other KEYS members to tell us how much they adore Rebecca. She is obviously very popular with the students and teachers alike. She won an award, given to her by the headmaster, which recognizes her quick ability to adapt and settle down to work. As she handed the award to KEYS members and me she simply glowed as we celebrated with her. In addition to all of this, she is a superb athlete. If you adhere to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Rebecca’s brilliance is definitely kinetic. To watch her play field hockey was incredible. It is like watching someone do what she was born to do.


Honestly, seeing the children succeed at Greensted’s is like watching someone do what they were born to do for all four of them. Think of yourself, and think of who you might be but for a difference of parents, location and background. Are we better because of opportunities or because of what we do with the opportunities we are given?


I know, for me, my life was changed. A competitive person by nature, I was bent on becoming the best at whatever I tried. It seemed my life’s pursuit was to be “successful,” and I often whined about the unfairness of it all when success eluded me. Knowing, and yes, loving Ann, Cyrus, Rebecca and Monti has forever changed me.


I don’t know that I would have naturally had the kind of backbone, drive and moral fiber that each has displayed without love, aid or support. I am kind because I was shown kindness. I am educated because I was taught to value learning. I am driven because I was taught this is vital to survival. Ann, Cyrus, Rebecca, and Monti either were born with these traits or learned them alone. This makes them already so far ahead of you and me, and most anyone I know in the United States.


Amy at the Great Rift Valley


The type of effect they will have on others as they mature and grow into their dreams in intangible. And, I can’t help but think that it is all because of a chain of opportunities. Serv won a grant to feed people in Kenya, they had the opportunity to build a much-need orphanage, KEYS members had the sponsorships available for scholarships, and Greensted’s had the space available for students.


I earned my Master’s at Kennesaw State University in Art Education this past December. I felt I had earned this degree alone and intended to use it to further my own career. But now, I realize I earned my degree because of the many opportunities afforded me through my parents, friends, professors and colleagues. I recognize my advanced degree might indeed help me along in my career, but now my interest in personal advancement has shifted. Instead of viewing my degree as something I did alone, I now view it as an opportunity given and am curious to explore how I might use what I learned in my program to provide more and lasting opportunities for others.


And, I have four no-longer-orphaned kids to thank for that.


The views expressed here are those of the author. They do no necesarily represent Kennesaw State University.

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